Way to Heaven
nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
May 10, 2009
Way to Heaven is a smart, riveting, and immensely powerful and important play.
You walk into the theatre. There is a long, skinny rectangle of masking tape demarcating the stage. Within the tape lines are dried leaves completely covering the floor. There are seats on either of the long sides of the rectangle. You choose your seat, going to the left or the right. An usher kindly, but firmly, tells you not to step on the leaves. You sit and stare at the people across from you and wait for the show to start.
A barefoot man wearing an overcoat steps on the leaves with a crunch. He is wearing pajamas underneath. He explains to us that during the war he was a Red Cross Representative, stationed in Germany. He inspected POW camps and finally bribed his way into inspecting a "Civilian Camp," known to us today as the Theresienstadt concentration camp. A weight is clearly bearing down on him as he simply and straightforwardly gives us his detailed report of what he saw there. He meets the camp's Commandant, and Gottfried, the Jewish "Mayor" of the camp. The two give him a tour of the "center of town," pointing out the synagogue, school, and other symbols of civilized life. They go to the woods and see a couple on a picnic blanket, a little girl with a doll, and two boys with a top. A large ramp, named the Himmelweg, leads to the infirmary. He is told it means "Way to Heaven." Our Red Cross Representative senses there is something odd, that everyone seems "mechanical" but he gets no sign, no hint from any of the people he sees. He sees no sign of the walking skeletons with yellow stars he had heard rumors of, and has no choice but to report back to the Red Cross what he saw. Somewhere in his even-toned narrative we are in the present, and we realize he walks through these grounds every night in his dreams, endlessly replaying the experience to see what he could possibly have done differently, if there was any way for him to have seen the truth.
How was the ruse created? How did the Nazis fool the Red Cross and, by so doing, help dispel rumors of extermination camps? They put on a show. Throughout the next four scenes of Way to Heaven, we see, in detail, how—from the perspectives of the Commandant and of Gottfried, and with our own eyes as members of the audience, watching "rehearsals."
Way to Heaven by Juan Mayorga is extremely intelligent and surprisingly evenhanded. The treatment of the Commandant is unlike any portrayal of a Nazi I have ever seen and Francisco Reyes gives a fascinating, idiosyncratic, stellar performance. The thing is—you want to like him, or at least want to be entertained by him. I have never before experienced fighting with myself while watching a play. He gesticulates excessively and appears to have ADHD. He appears cultured and learned, handsome and funny. There is some dialogue about the difference between a "pause" and a "silence" in a script. If that same dialogue were in A Mighty Wind the audience would be in stitches. But because this is a Nazi, we deliberately hold ourselves back. As an audience member, you have to keep reminding yourself not to laugh at him, not to justify what he is saying. It is a constant struggle. He often addresses the audience, asking us questions. At one point, he asks everyone to close their eyes. I did not, and then was surprised to see that a few people across from me had. Many smart choices, from writer, director, and actor, went into making such a riveting character. He is not demonized or idolized, nor is he portrayed as a "normal" person. Instead, he is a theatrical being—which makes sense, who else could engineer something of this proportion?
Mark Farr and Shawn Parr give equally skilled and nuanced performances as Gottfried and the Red Cross Representative, respectively, introspective men weighed down with guilt and second-thoughts whilst working for the "greater good." An ensemble of seven more actors make up the, well, "actors" in the camp—the boys with the top, the couple on the blanket, the little girl with the doll.
In one scene, Gottfried complains that the script is not working because "no one talks like that." The Commandant replies that this is true, and true of all plays, but what makes it seem real is the gestures you make. Director Matthew Earnest takes this to heart: in his simple staging there is no extraneous gesture, no uncalculated movement—everything is done for a reason and the cast rises superbly to the challenge. Earnest rides brilliantly between realism and stylized performance, the past and the present, and you have the sensation the rug is constantly being pulled out from beneath you. This is a performance you have to work for. Mayorga, Ernest, and the diligent ensemble have a high estimation of the audience's intelligence, as all good theatre should.
The most commonly stated reason for learning and reading about the Holocaust is "so it won't happen again." You must know history so as not to repeat it. This is certainly true for Way to Heaven. But the play goes a step further, giving us a way to be proactive. It says underneath each crunch of the leaves—look for the show. Everyone acts to a degree, but look to see if those in power are. And if so, what are they hiding?